Words of wisdom
HOW DO YOU explain the intricacies of human relationships to a child? The unspoken codes of friendship, the factors which make intimates of people we do not know? When Alan Macfarlane, professor of anthropology at Cambridge University, wanted to explain friendship to his grand-daughter Lily, aged seven, he decided it might be best to write it down.
His treatise is one of a range of life lessons Macfarlane has penned for the little girl, and collated in the newly published Letters to Lily in which he tries to answer such questions as Who are you? What is love? Is violence necessary? Who is God? and Why are we here?
Macfarlane hopes Lily will read his letters when she reaches the age of 17. But in the below extract from his work, we can all enjoy his advice on what friendship means.
What is friendship?
The essence of friendship is equality. It must not develop into that inequality of power and gifts that is the essence of patronage. If it does, it will be destroyed. It must also be based on liking, mutual interest and shared feelings and thoughts. To "like" someone is very different from "loving" someone.
Friendship is not a static thing. It is like a river, meaningful only if it is heading in some direction. It must always be developing, changing and expanding, absorbing new experiences. A shared activity or need is behind friendship. There are so many people in the world. Why spend time with just one? Because one enjoys their company, they are "good fun", amusing, supportive, kind.
Friends mustn’t be manipulative or calculating. Friendship abides by a central rule of ethics, namely that "We should treat people as ends in themselves and not as a means to an end." If you feel a friend is "using you", then the friendship ends. Just as true love and beauty cannot be bought or sold, so friendship cannot be purchased. You cannot go to an agency and buy or hire a friend, while you certainly can hire a person’s mind or body for a particular task.
So friendship is about the long-term liking of two equal people for each other.
We have to work at friendships; it neither comes naturally nor remains without constant attention. Friends can be likened to an orchard: they have to be carefully planted, pruned and protected. They cannot, however, be turned into private and exclusive property. You will find throughout your life that one of the most difficult things is to share friends - and sometimes to lose them.
Friendship often clashes with other ties, especially to our family and particularly our love partner. Yet when it works, it can be one of the deepest of all relationships.
How do friends communicate?
Often the best communication with friends is, surprisingly, silence. Friendship is not only about what we say, but also about what we do not. True friendship occurs when information is conveyed by the absence of words.
The striving is to convey as much as possible indirectly. The reason such communication is important is that it requires a greater closeness. The greater the distance between sender and receiver, the more the need for directness. Only when two or more people share an enormous amount can this take place.
What is respect for other people?
Friendship is based on respect and courtesy. Courtesy and politeness mean putting ourselves into the place of the other person, to see ourselves as others see us. We practise a form of empathy which is impossible except between people who believe themselves to be, in essence, close enough or equal enough to have some sense of the other’s feelings or predicament. Yet courtesy and politeness are also distancing mechanisms, for while they establish a certain common closeness, they then keep people at arm’s length. They can be used to emphasise the other’s separate needs and wants, their personal social space.
Humans are social animals and love to love and be loved. To be able to feel warmth in the company of good friends or mates is a special pleasure. It helps to overcome some of the loneliness of our rushed and individualistic lives. We are no longer islands, but part of a continent. We find mirrors for ourselves in others, support and help in difficulties, the pleasure of giving when we have too much. Some of the moments I shall always treasure are those when, as true friends, you and I have explored the world together, enjoying a new garden, a visit to the Natural History Museum, or discovering the fairy-tales of the Brothers Grimm, with a joy that could not have come if we had been on our own.
Letters to Lily by Alan Macfarlane is published by Profile Books priced 14.99. www.alanmacfarlane.com
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 21 May 2013
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 3 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: West